If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If not now, when?
One of the most important experiences of my life happened when I was six years old. My family lived in Illinois, on the edge of cornfields. I remember standing outside early one evening, looking down at the rainwater in the ruts left by tractors, and then looking back at our house. I felt wistful and sad about the anger inside it. There were lights twinkling in the distant hills, the homes of other, perhaps happier families.
As an adult today, I can see that my parents were loving, decent people dealing with their own stresses, and that my childhood was fortunate in many ways. My dad had a tough job and my mom had her hands full with my sister and me. I don’t remember what happened in our home that night. It could have been an ordinary argument. But as if it were yesterday, I remember feeling a caring toward myself. I felt bad, those feelings mattered, and I wanted to help myself feel better. Many years later, I learned that this was compassion--the recognition of pain with the desire to relieve it--which can be given to oneself much as it can be given to others.
I clearly recall knowing that it would be up to me to get through the time ahead, and to find those lights and those people and that greater happiness. I loved my parents and wasn’t against anyone. But I was for myself. I was determined--as a child can be, and an adult as well--to have as good a life as I could.
My own path of well-being began with compassion, as it does for most people. Compassion for yourself is fundamental, since if you don’t care how you feel and want to do something about it, it’s hard to make an effort to become happier and more resilient. Compassion is both soft and muscular. For example, studies show that when people feel compassion, motor planning areas in the brain begin preparing for action.
Compassion is a psychological resource, an inner strength. In this chapter, we’ll explore how to grow compassion and use it for yourself, and in later chapters, we’ll see how to bring compassion to others.
Be for Yourself
When we treat others with respect and caring, the best in them usually comes out. Much the same would happen if we could treat ourselves the same way.
Yet most of us are a better friend to others than we are to ourselves. We care about their pain, see positive qualities in them, and treat them fairly and kindly. But what kind of friend are you to yourself? Many people are tough on themselves, critical, second-guessing and self-doubting, tearing down rather than building up.
Imagine treating yourself like you would a friend. You’d be encouraging, warm, and sympathetic, and you’d help yourself heal and grow. Think about what a typical day would be like if you were on your own side. What would it feel like to appreciate your good intentions and good heart, and be less self-critical?
Why It’s Good to Be Good to Yourself
It helps to understand the reasons it’s both fair and important to be on your own side. Otherwise, beliefs like these can take over: “It’s selfish to think about what you want.” “You don’t deserve love.” “Deep down you’re bad.” “You’ll fail if you dream bigger dreams.”
First, there’s the general principle that we should treat people with decency and compassion. Well, “people” includes the person who wears your name tag. The Golden Rule is a two-way street: we should do unto ourselves as we do unto others.
Second, the more influence we have over someone, the more responsibility we have to treat them well. For example, surgeons have great power over their patients, so they have a great duty to be careful when they operate on them. Who’s the one person you can affect the most? It’s yourself, both you in this moment and your future self: the person you will be in the next minute, week, or year. If you think of yourself as someone to whom you have a duty of care and kindness, what might change in how you talk to yourself, and in how you go about your day?
Third, being good to yourself is good for others. When people increase their own well-being, they usually become more patient, cooperative, and caring in their relationships. Think about how it would benefit others if you felt less stressed, worried, or irritated, and more peaceful, contented, and loving.
You can take practical steps to help yourself really believe that it’s good to treat yourself with respect and compassion. You could write down simple statements--such as “I am on my own side” or “I’m taking a stand for myself” or “I matter, too”--and read them aloud to yourself or put them somewhere you’ll see each day. You could imagine telling someone why you are going to take better care of your own needs. Or imagine a friend, a mentor, or even your fairy godmother telling you to be on your own side--and let them talk you into it!
The Feeling of Caring for Yourself
When I left home for UCLA in 1969, I was hyper-rational and stuck in my head. This was a way to avoid feeling sad, hurt, and worried, but then I didn’t feel much of anything at all. I had to get in touch with myself in order to heal and grow. California in the 1970s was at the center of the human potential movement, and I dove in even though it seemed kind of freaky. (Primal screaming! Encounter groups! Bare your soul on demand!) I gradually learned to tune into my emotions and body sensations in general. In particular, I started paying attention to what it felt like to get on my own side, and to have warmth and support toward myself instead of coldness and criticism. It felt good to do this, so I kept doing it. Each time I focused on these positive experiences was like working a muscle and strengthening it, again and again. With repetition, kindness and encouragement for myself gradually sank in and became a natural way of being.
Many years later as a psychologist, I learned how my intuitive efforts had worked. Focusing on and staying with any experience of a psychological resource--such as the sense of being for yourself--is a powerful way to reinforce it in your brain. Then you take that inner strength with you wherever you go.
In the chapters on Mindfulness and Learning, I’ll explain in detail how to turn your thoughts and feelings into lasting strengths inside: the basis of true resilience. The essence is simple: first, experience what you want to develop in yourself--such as compassion or gratitude--and second, focus on it and keep it going to increase its consolidation in your nervous system.
This is the fundamental process of positive brain change. To get a sense of it, try the practice in the box. It takes only a minute or two, or you can slow it down for a deeper effect. Like anything I suggest, adapt it to your own needs. Additionally, in the flow of everyday life, notice when you have an attitude or feeling of caring for yourself, and then stay with the experience for a few extra moments, feeling it in your body, sinking into it as it sinks into you.
Being for Yourself
Bring to mind a time when you were on somebody’s side: perhaps a child you were protecting, a friend you were encouraging, or an aging parent with health issues. Recall what this felt like in your body--in the set of your shoulders, in the expression on your face. Recall some of your thoughts and feelings--perhaps caring, determination, even a fierce intensity.
Then, knowing what it’s like to be on someone’s side, apply this attitude to yourself. Get a sense of being an ally to yourself--someone who will look out for you, help you, protect you. Recognize that you have rights and needs that matter.
It’s normal if other reactions come up, such as feeling unworthy. Just notice and disengage from them, and then come back to the sense of wishing yourself well. Focus on this experience, and stay with it for a couple breaths or longer.
Bring to mind times when you were really on your own side. Perhaps you were encouraging yourself during a tough period at work or speaking up to someone who hurt you. Get a sense of what that was like, emotionally and in your body. Remember some of the thoughts you had, such as “It’s only fair for others to help, too.” Stay with this experience and let it fill your mind.
Know what it’s like to be committed to your own well-being. Let the feelings, thoughts, and intentions of being a true friend to yourself sink in, becoming a part of you.
Bring Compassion to Your Pain
Compassion is a warmhearted sensitivity to suffering--from subtle mental or physical discomfort to agonizing pain--along with the desire to help if you can. Giving compassion lowers stress and calms your body. Receiving compassion makes you stronger: more able to take a breath, find your footing, and keep on going.
You get the benefits of both giving and receiving compassion when you offer it to yourself. Much as you can see the burdens and stresses of others, you can recognize these same things in yourself. Much as you can feel moved by their suffering, you can be touched by your own. You can bring the same support to yourself that you’d provide for someone else. And if there’s not much compassion for you coming from others, it’s more important than ever to give it to yourself.
This is not whining or wallowing in misery. Compassion for yourself is where you start when things are tough, not where you stop. Research by Kristin Neff and others has shown that self-compassion makes a person more resilient, more able to bounce back. It lowers self-criticism and builds up self-worth, helping you to be more ambitious and successful, not complacent and lazy. In compassion for your own pain is a sense of common humanity: we all suffer, we all face disease and death, we all lose others we love. Everyone is fragile. As Leonard Cohen sang: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Everyone is cracked. Everyone needs compassion.
Challenges to Self-Compassion
Yet self-compassion is challenging for many of us. One reason has to do with how our nervous system works. The brain is designed to be changed by our experiences, particularly negative ones, and especially those that occurred in childhood. It’s normal to internalize the ways that your parents and others have treated you--which might have included ignoring, belittling, or punishing your softer feelings and longings--and then treat yourself in the same way.
For example, I had conscientious and loving parents, and I’m very grateful to them. That said, while growing up, I experienced frequent criticism and not much compassion, and I took these attitudes into myself. I’ve always been moved by the pain of others. But my own pain? I pushed it away, and then wondered why it kept growing.
I had to learn how to bring compassion to my own suffering. We learn many things in life, including how to ride a bicycle, apologize to a friend, or talk ourselves down from being upset. What does it take for learning to happen?
The key to growing any psychological resource, including compassion, is to have repeated experiences of it that get turned into lasting changes in neural structure or function. It’s like recording a song on an old-fashioned tape recorder: as the song plays--as you experience the resource--you can help it leave a physical trace behind in your nervous system.
When you’re already experiencing something enjoyable or useful--perhaps the satisfaction in finishing a report at work or the comfort in plopping onto the sofa at the end of a long day--simply notice it. You can also deliberately create an experience of something you want to develop, such as the feeling of being on your own side. Once you’re having the experience, feel it as fully as possible and take a little time--a breath or two or ten--to stay with it. The more often you do this, the more you will tend to hardwire psychological resources into yourself.
To develop more self-compassion, take a few minutes to try the practice in the box. As you build up compassion for yourself, you’ll be more able to tap into it whenever you want.
Compassion for Yourself
Bring to mind times you have felt cared about by people, pets, or spiritual beings, in your life today or in your past. Any kind of caring for you counts, such as times you were included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved. Relax and open yourself to feeling cared about. If you get distracted, just come back to feeling cared about. Stay with these feelings and sense them sinking in, like water into a sponge.
Then think about one or more people you have compassion for--perhaps a child in pain, a friend going through a divorce, or refugees on the other side of the world. Get a sense of their burdens, worries, and suffering. Feel a warmheartedness, a sympathetic concern. You could put a hand on your heart and have thoughts such as, “May your pain ease . . . may you find work . . . may you get through this illness.” Give yourself over to compassion, letting it fill you and flow through you.
Knowing what compassion feels like, apply it to yourself. Recognize any ways you feel stressed, tired, ill, mistreated, or unhappy. Then bring compassion to yourself as you would to a friend who felt like you do. Know that everyone suffers and that you are not alone in your pain. Perhaps place a hand on your heart or your cheek. Depending on what has happened, you could think, “May I not suffer . . . may these hurt feelings pass . . . may I not worry so much . . . may I heal from this illness.” Imagine compassion like a gentle warm rain coming down into you, touching and soothing the weary, hurting, longing places inside.
One time a friend and I climbed the East Buttress to the top of Mount Whitney. The route back to our tent went down a snow-filled gulley. It was October, the snow had turned to ice, and we had to move carefully and slowly. It was getting dark and we couldn’t see where we were going. Rather than risk a deadly fall, we decided to sit on a small ledge all night, wrapped in a space blanket with our feet in our daypacks, shivering in freezing temperatures.